King Khan

Over the past decade, Shah Rukh Khan has become the world’s most famous actor, appearing in a string of Bollywood hits. With business ventures and endorsement deals, he is also quickly becoming one of the world’s richest-ever stars. Arabian Business caught up with him in Dubai.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  January 18, 2005

Bollywood|~||~||~|The arrival of Shah Rukh Khan in person is as farcical as most of the billion-dollar hit movies he has starred in. As he emerges from his motorcade, three minders, all dressed in black and wearing dark sunglasses surround him. Khan himself is wearing a white polo neck top and jeans. He quickly throws on a pair of dark sunglasses, and the entire group begins running — for no apparent reason — through the foyer of Dubai’s Grand Hyatt hotel. When it becomes clear that nobody is chasing them, they all stop. One of the minders places a cigarette in Khan’s lips, another lights it. Slowly, the entire group walks back down the foyer of the hotel, with Khan acknowledging the cheers of well-wishers. “I love being recognised. I love being famous. It’s just the most brilliant thing. I love the adulation. I love it when girls scream at me. I would be very unhappy if nobody recognised me,” he later admits. There is little danger of that right now, as Khan is arguably the biggest movie star on the planet. The 38-year-old has reached a level of hero worship even Brad Pitt would find hard to match: almost every film he has appeared in since 1995 has been a huge hit, with total revenues of close to US$4 billion. He commands US$30 million a movie, and Khan’s current world tour of his stage show Temptation is a worldwide sell-out, fetching US$300 a ticket from Mumbai to Chicago. In terms of recognition, Bollywood’s 3.6 billion global audience is a billion bigger than the best Hollywood can offer, making his face one of the best known on earth. It’s the reason why soft drink giant Pepsi, car titan Hyundai, and fashion guru Calvin Klein are amongst 53 big-name corporations that have asked Khan to endorse their products. He usually says yes, which would explain why movie pundits in India put his personal fortune at over US$1 billion, making him the world’s richest actor in history. And, as Khan loves to point out, he “loves it”. “I love it man, everything. I love everything,” he says. When asked specifically how much he loves the money, he sweeps back his hair again, before asking: “How much do you love money?” It’s a neat trick Khan uses, answering questions with questions, especially the ones he doesn’t want to answer. And he’s a master of the game. Just how much money has he got? “How much have you got?” Does he really have a billion? “Do you have a billion?” Does he count his money? “Do you count yours?” For a fleeting moment, he almost loses his cool. “What is your obsession with money about? Why is everyone in Dubai obsessed with money? My money! Your money! Money, money, money. There is greed in the world. Do you agree with me? Is there too much temptation in Dubai? Too much everything?” One of his minders whispers something in his ear, while the other prepares to light him another cigarette. Suddenly, he changes his tone. “I really like Dubai. I love it,” he says. Maybe he has just remembered that only a week before our meeting, he was riding around in a boat off the spectacular Palm development, on the coast of Dubai, with the chairman of property developer Nakheel, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem. Khan was more than tempted with what he saw, and decided to snap up one of the soon-to-be-built US$20 million villas. (Later, his PR company sends me a statement from Khan in which he says: “Dubai is filled with enchantment and a drive to create something that has never been seen before. I am lost for words when I see the achievements of Nakheel’s Palm projects and cannot wait for my return visit, when so much more will have changed and been attained.”) Khan, by his own admission, is the world’s most unlikely superstar. He had grand plans about becoming a big hit film director in the late 1980s, which never happened. He then tried to make a hit out of soap opera acting, which never happened. Then, in 1991, he moved from Bombay [now Mumbai] to New Delhi after the death of both his parents, but again, he would be the first to admit that he had (and still has) no obvious gift for Bollywood stardom. He can’t sing, he can’t dance that well, and is not the most confident actor on the scene. He is shy, diminutive and dimpled. “I’m no Al Pacino in acting, and no Brad Pitt in looks,” he once said. Thankfully, again by his own admission, most of his movies are “nonsense”. Last year’s biggest box office hit movie was Main Hoon Na [I’m here now]. It features Khan as a secret agent who goes back to school to protect a general’s daughter, who is somehow vital to peace between India and Pakistan. Apart from accomplishing the mission, Khan must work through a love match with a chemistry teacher, and burst into song several times during the 90-minute spectacle. “That’s what Indian movies are about. Total fantasy. A chance to get away from the hard slog of real life. People watch Bollywood to be entertained, not to be informed. Nobody is suggesting that in real life you burst into song and dance every few minutes. Or maybe you do? Do you?" he asks. But Khan is no fool, and in between gathering the millions from his movies, he has also been carefully carving out his own business empire. He has a stake in a production company Dreamz Unlimited, jointly owned by fellow actors Aziz Mirza and Juhi Chawla. He also runs his own independent production house, Red Chilies Entertainment, and has even launched his own perfume, SK, created by the Paris-based Jeanne Arthes. He says: “I run these other ventures, but with Red Chilies Entertainment I would be lying if I said it has always been profitable. The fact is they haven’t always been profitable, and that often is the case when you try to do something creative. Creativity costs money. There are a lot of very expensive things that happen before the curtain goes up.” He adds: “I don’t watch every penny that comes in and goes out, which is what I should do. Maybe that’s why it loses money sometimes. But I think it’s important for people like me to fund these types of ventures. It also gives other younger actors a chance to perform, the sort of chance I was given when I was younger.” More significantly in terms of cash, he is the face of Pepsi around much of the Asian sub-continent, having signed a reported US$10 million endorsement deal with the drinks giant, five times more than Michael Jackson was paid. In recent months there have been health scares attached to the Pepsi brand, particularly in India. Khan has continued to promote the drink. Is it because of the US$10 million that goes with his support? “No. I actually like it. If people don’t want to drink Pepsi because they have health issues that’s fine. But no, it’s good enough for me,” he says, before opening a can. Strangely, the very fact Khan is happy to pop open a can of Pepsi is likely to have made the drinks company several extra million dollars, such is his power. Or, in some cases, the sheer obsession of some of his fans. “I get people who fall sick and think I can cure them. I get people who leave their houses in different states of undress and stand outside mine. I get people who write me personal messages in blood. It’s odd,” he says. It sure is. He looks genuinely embarrassed by the whole thing, admitting: “I really don’t think of myself as powerful. Power is not something I have; it’s what some people think they have. Do you have power? Do you think I have?” The answer becomes clear a few minutes later. As Khan prepares to leave the Grand Hyatt, an elderly Indian man, who rushes towards the star, almost overcome with emotion, spots him. “Shah Rukh, Shah Rukh. I worship you. I am grateful to be breathing the same air as you,” he says, before almost bursting into tears. But rather than dismiss the adulation of an over-eager fan, as most stars would, Khan takes the man by the hand and thanks him for watching his movies. He then explains: “You see, when I was young, all I wanted was to be successful. You don’t know how hard I have worked, how hard it has been and how hard I have slogged all my life to be successful. And to be famous. And now that I am, I enjoy every minute of it. But the trick about being famous is you have to remember that it doesn’t make you special. What makes a person special is being ordinary.”||**||

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